Review: “Superman Returns”

With Bryan Singer having successfully kicked off the new wave of ‘serious minded’ comic book movies with 2000’s “X-Men”, it came as little surprise when he was employed to direct the latest screen interpretation of comics most famous character – Superman. Yes, Batman is cooler and more interesting, Spider-Man more popular with comic fans, and the X-Men much richer and deeper in terms of story potential. Yet it’s that ‘S’ shield and character that is the most recognised and well known to have ever come out of comic fandom. He’s a character those who’ve never picked up a comic can still have a strong familiarity with thanks to decades of cross-promotion in pop culture including four major films and at least four different TV incarnations.

Even though I haven’t read the comic, I have seen the four films quite a few times and every episode of “Lois & Clark”, “Smallville” and the animated series in the 90’s. Does that make me a fan of the character? I guess so, I enjoy them on different levels and for the different interpretations they’ve brought to the story. Now comes ‘Returns’ and the good news is this “Superman” flies, the bad news is it never soars. Spit-polished to perfection, the visual effects are superb, the production values are excellent, the few action moments are top notch, and Routh is a real find who turns at least the Superman aspect of his persona into a solid role. Some of the smaller roles like Jimmy Olson are cleverly plaid, a slightly more emotional element about old flames returning has some strong moments, and the usage of the old film elements like the music and Brando are respectful and well incorporated without over-doing it.

Yet the story is clunky and inherently uninteresting, many of the supporting characters literally just stand around with nothing to do, the pacing really drags throughout the all too long runtime, and the scant moments of humour are often forced and unfunny. Moments of the truly epic awkwardly intermix with a lot of quieter scenes which work to only varying effect, and above all the film is essentially a downer – it’s ambitious and has a big heart, but at 2.5 hours the serious lack of energy and drive make it a slog for all but the devotees. I don’t want to be a downer, but this is Superman – giving him a more emotional arc is a great idea but not when it comes at the cost of sucking the life out of much of the film.

The original Donner films get a lot of love these days and in many ways the first two are pretty solid, yet both have some big flaws. ‘Returns’ is a more even film and striving to be a more mature film overall, even if a lot of it is essentially a remake of the first one. There’s a real desire here to honor the first two Donner films which you have to give the filmmakers credit for, and certainly a portion of fans will ultimately fall in love with the ‘semi-sequel’ approach. Yet by putting the old stuff on a pedestal, it makes the comparisons that much more obvious and jarring – saddling the whole endeavor with a lot more baggage than had they done a reinvention or a direct sequel. The film makes a few key references to events in the old films, yet deliberately ignores or sidesteps some other pretty obvious ones.

In an admirable attempt though it tries to examine an interesting premise about the world and Lois Lane having moved on with their lives. As much as there’s a tad too many scenes in this storyline which drags the movie out, it’s the best subplot of the whole flick. There’s a scene that essentially recreates the famous Supes/Lois nighttime flying sequence that’s nice, but is immediately followed by a strong and effective emotional moment that feels quite real when old flames get caught up in the magic again briefly. This, along with two or three other scenes including a conversation in a kitchen, strike with the film’s few moments of emotional realism and maturity. Sadly, whilst the love triangle element is never explored in any real depth, the concept is sound and poses an interesting dilemma.

Not so successful is the kid. Whilst the storyline wraps on a nice note, there’s never any real justification for the whole subplot of Lois having a child and if this is the franchise starter they hope it will be, the kid will only further complicate things (though to be fair the kid actor handles things well). By far though the weakest link is the Luthor scheme which involves growing a continent using technology from the Fortress of Solitude. It’s a silly scheme, even in a fantasy film, and brings up all sorts of logistical holes the film never answers. That could be all fine and good if it ended on a strong note but not only does it not, there’s also one of those silly codas that seems more suited for a “Scooby-Doo” film than “Superman”.

Performances range in quality drastically. The strongest by far is Routh playing both Clark and Superman. At times there’s some channeling of Christopher Reeve’s definitive performance in both mannerisms and tones, and when it comes to Clark he sadly lacks that quietly self-aware klutz routine that Reeve did so well – leaving his human persona rather plain. On the other hand his Superman is well done, and as much as Reeve is iconic, Routh is able to display a strong sense of inner strength and nobility. He even adds a quiet vulnerability which none of the other Supermen have really done before. Whilst Reeve will always remain the definitive Supes, Routh fills the shoes well (like Brosnan for Connery in the Bond films) and I’d certainly be happy seeing him in further adventures.

Kudos also to Sam Huntington for giving pretty much the best take on Jimmy Olson yet, comical and geeky yet mildly endearing. As one of the few people who has fun with his role, he often steals his various scenes and along with some zingers from Parker Posey, he gets the pick of the film’s very few laughs. Posey also does well at first, essentially recreating the Miss Tessmacher role and getting one fun scene with Routh, but halfway through she turns into a bubbling wreck with nothing to do but tear up over the moral quandary of her situation. Langella brings a decent gravitas to his role, making him arguably the most realistic news editor seen in comic book movies, but is always on the side and never gets a strong scene of his own which ultimately makes him a forgettable bit of the background.

Spacey is Spacey, he essentially tries re-doing the Gene Hackman interpretation from the old movies but goes a tad more serious and darker. As it’s a PG-rated movie though it stays pretty fluffy, Spacey never comes off as threatening until one scene towards the end which stands out as unnecessarily brutal. Ultimately though whereas Hackman had an interesting energy and bite to him, Spacey unfortunately just seems bored despite all the campy vamping about. His various assistants from Ian Roberts to Kal Penn have maybe one line each in the whole movie, there’s really little point in them being there.

A more weather-beaten than I remembered James Marsden does what he can with the thankless role of Lois Lane’s new husband, yet short of the character’s seaplane faring escapades he has literally been given nothing much to do – never really getting any dramatic meat to sink his teeth into, and this is despite the fact the premise plays him as the thorn in our hero side (albeit a very soft thorn). Finally there’s Bosworth, and yes while her young age seems wrong for the character, she fares better than you’d expect with only one or two lines betraying that she’s too young for the part. Still, her Lois Lane lacks the tenacious sexiness of Teri Hatcher, the inherent smarts and bravado of Margot Kidder, even the sassy charm of Erica Durance. Rather this one is more of a temperamental soccer mom. Bosworth plays a reporter, a mother and a pissed off ex-lover all with the same stubborn anger and pride that just don’t fit the character – and don’t get me started on her lapses of stupidity that certainly don’t become a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The script is really a lot of the problem – whilst taking some imaginative flights of fancy and keeping other moments grounded in emotion, it also often feels stilted. It’s a testament that in a 2.5 hour runtime there really isn’t a scene one can cut specifically without harming the storyline, yet many of the scenes that are in feel like they could’ve been so much better had they been given more polish and intensity. Often it feels like it’s trying too hard to generate emotion but is restrained by trying to appeal to such a broad audience. It also too often delves into schmaltz, especially in the all too drawn out last act. Balancing a story that mixes mythos, emotion and action is always a difficult thing at the best of times, but with the standard set so high thanks to the likes of “Batman Begins”, “Spider-Man 2” and even Singer’s own “X2”, if you don’t clear the bar these days it’s hard not to be disappointed.

Metaphors are delivered with a sledgehammer rather than a subtle touch (there’s three ‘Jesus Christ = Superman’ references in the final half hour), and pacing is distinctly flat most of the time. Cinematography is quite epic on the big scale scenes but too restricted on the quieter moments, although the new camera technology developed for the film works gangbusters – this certainly feels more like watching something shot on film rather than on digital video. Whilst the score faithfully pumps the old Williams music, its incidental beats are solid but somewhat forgettable with no new theme really standing out at all.

There’s a great potential here, and if Singer and co. can improve on this like they did with the first sequel to the “X-Men” franchise, this can certainly blossom. It’s more polished than the first “X-Men” but lacks the intriguing characters, it certainly doesn’t balance the emotions and action in the almost balletic way Sam Raimi does in “Spider-Man”, and it pales in everything from script to direction to acting compared with “Batman Begins” (ok, Bosworth is decidedly better than Katie Holmes, I’ll give you that.

Yet it’s certainly way above a lot of other efforts in the genre, far from the horrors of “Fantastic Four” or the last two films in the “Superman” franchise. I hate to be a downer, but unfortunately in the end it winds up being just an average film on first viewing despite its good intentions. It’s a well made affair but lacking in life or any real energy, much like walking into its ice fortress setting – beautiful but cold. A more solid story that dumps the waffle for fewer scenes of high emotion, stronger action and more intriguing characters could see Superman truly soar again hopefully some day soon.